Red Sox could strong-arm opposition

With Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein seemingly done with his offseason shopping, barring a minor tweak or two, ESPNBoston.com's Gordon Edes is looking at the team position by position. Today, Edes breaks down the starting rotation.

Boston's biggest offseason acquisition was a starting pitcher, John Lackey, who signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal last month. Lackey gives the Red Sox five starting pitchers -- joining Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tim Wakefield -- who have pitched in a World Series, and four who have won (Wakefield being the exception). The sixth Boston starter, Clay Buchholz, pitched in the postseason for the first time this past October.

2009 performance: What looked to be a strength coming into the season quickly unraveled. Matsuzaka, MVP of the World Baseball Classic, came into camp unprepared and out of shape (he says he had a groin injury that he suffered before the WBC, but the Sox wonder whether that might be an exercise in face-saving), and was on the disabled list after just two starts. The Red Sox all but gave up on him in June and sent him back to their Fort Myers, Fla., facility for nearly two months to build up his shoulder; he pitched well in September, but it was too late to salvage an abysmal season.

Wakefield was an All-Star in the season's first half, but broke down in the second half, when he made just four starts and lost both of his decisions, and had back surgery after the season. The Red Sox gambled on a return to form for both John Smoltz and Brad Penny and lost, with neither lasting the season in Boston. Swingman Justin Masterson, meanwhile, was traded to Cleveland. Desperate, the Sox signed Paul Byrd, which didn't help (1-3, 5.82 ERA).

Buchholz, exiled to Pawtucket at the start of the season, was promoted in July and showed major growth, allowing three or fewer runs in 12 of his 16 starts, including nine quality starts in his last dozen. The Sox believed in him enough to give him a Game 3 start in the division series against the Angels. Beckett had two bad months, April and August, but he pitched a career-high 212 1/3 innings, won 17 games and proved he was healthy again. Lester was 4-5 with a 5.65 ERA through the season's first two months, but was among the game's best pitchers thereafter, going 11-3 with a 2.35 ERA and allowing 0.59 hits per nine innings.

But overall, the Sox ranked 19th in starters' ERA (4.63), a sure sign that help was needed.

Departures: RHP Byrd was a free agent. Smoltz, Penny and Masterson all departed before the end of the season.

Newcomer: RHP Lackey signed as a free agent. RHP Boof Bonser signed as a free agent.

In-house candidates: RHP Michael Bowden, RHP Junichi Tazawa.

Upgrade over 2009? An unqualified yes.

Lackey admitted Thursday that pitching regularly in the American League East will pose a challenge after seven seasons with the Angels, but said, "I think it brings out the best in you." Lackey doesn't have to be more than the No. 3 starter on the Sox staff, which raises questions about the high investment, especially for five years in a pitcher who has had arm trouble.

Beckett's contract situation bears watching. Beckett is entering the last year of his contract with the Sox, and although general manager Theo Epstein said the team wants him back and Beckett wants to return, we've heard the same with other aces before (Pedro Martinez) . Joe Sheehan, while still with Baseball Prospectus, raised a provocative scenario, suggesting that the Sox could use Beckett in their quest for Padres strongman Adrian Gonzalez, with the Padres then flipping Beckett to a contender for top prospects. A long shot, but plausible.

Matsuzaka figures to have a strong bounce-back year. "I think he has peace of mind that his shoulder is sound," pitching coach John Farrell said. Lester is a perennial Cy Young candidate, and Buchholz is on the cusp of becoming the top-of-the-rotation type pitcher the Sox have been predicting. "What he is showing," Farrell said, "is game awareness and awareness of himself." The development of his two-seam fastball, and his confidence in the pitch, has been a big difference-maker, Farrell said.

Wakefield is rehabbing after back surgery and is already throwing on flat ground, but his role remains unclear. "The days of Wake logging all those innings is probably past," Francona said. "But you can guarantee Wake is going to pitch and win his games. We've just got to figure what's best for him and the team."

But overall, the Sox would appear positioned to put their top five against anybody's.

"It's exciting, no question about it," Farrell said.

Said Francona: "Remember the days of the Braves with Glavine and Smoltz and Maddux? Look it up in USA Today, they were always the favorites. There's something to that."

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Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He has covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Follow him on Twitter or ask a question for his next mailbag.